A vast expanse of dirt and rubble along W. Broadway in Minneapolis is all that remains from the fire that tore through historic buildings there one year ago.

There are high hopes to restore vitality to this portion of the North Side’s commercial core, but competing development interests and financial hurdles indicate it may take some time. The April 2015 fire ultimately led to the demolition of four buildings, including the city’s oldest grocery store, just last month. The fire’s cause was never determined.

“It’s been a rough year,” said David Grady, looking at the empty lot and the adjacent building he owns, which housed a Boost Mobile store and two apartments before the fire. The building is vacant now, with an old note still scrawled across the window of the former Boost Mobile store that says, “We will be back here in 90 days. New look more fun!”

The aftermath of the fire has been a long mess of insurance claims, contractors and structural engineers. He’s not sure what’s next.

“I want to renovate, but financially I don’t know if I’m going to be able to,” Grady said.

The narrow sidewalk storefronts destroyed by the fire were among the last vestiges of a building style that invited small businesses and foot traffic along W. Broadway during its heyday as a shopping area. Most were torn down through successive large-scale developments to make way for parking lots and strip mall-style development that now pervade the street.

Marie Egbujor of Paradise Beauty Salon, which sustained water and smoke damage, said the empty space next door hasn’t been good for business.

“It’s not good right now. I feel like I’m empty,” Egbujor said. “Because when you come in, all you see is my little building just standing … and nothing is going on back there.”

‘Heart and soul’

There are tentative plans to rebuild where the buildings came down. The owner of Brix Grocery, a business that has operated at that location since 1893, submitted conceptual plans to the city for a new two-story building — but hasn’t formally applied for city approval. He did not respond to requests for comment.

And local businessman Tim Baylor has purchased a parcel that featured an Unbank outlet until it was destroyed. Baylor once proposed tearing down these and other buildings on W. Broadway for an apartment, office and retail project spanning just over two blocks. He also did not return requests for comment.

One of the destroyed buildings was occupied by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), the North Side’s most prominent grass roots activist organization. The group raised tens of thousands of dollars to purchase the land, hoping to rebuild there, but says the owner would not sell it to them.

NOC Executive Director Anthony Newby said they’ve been soliciting community feedback on what people would like to see there and hope to pursue a project — somewhere else if necessary.

“We have some blueprints that have been drawn up. We’re working with potential partners and investors,” Newby said. “We’re not tied to this block, but we do feel like that [property] in many ways could be the heart and soul of whatever development comes next on Broadway Avenue.”

Development incentives?

Ian Alexander, an attorney and commercial real estate agent, has clients interested in some buildings on the block that remain standing. He said rents on W. Broadway often don’t command the prices needed to pay for a major renovation, however. He added that there should be more flexible zoning rules.

“There are ways to redevelop north Minneapolis, particularly West Broadway, that are going to take bigger financial incentives and tools to make it happen,” Alexander said.

Council Member Blong Yang, who represents the area, said he would be open to subsidies but would like to see a large concept for the site. He said it appears Baylor is having trouble acquiring all the properties he wants.

“I would love to see a bigger project like [Baylor’s project] or something to that scale on that block,” Yang said.

Last July, fire officials asked the public for tips about what caused the fire — saying it was possibly arson. The city’s arson investigator, Sean McKenna, said Friday that nothing came of the plea for information. 

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